Momentum is building for a proposal to begin electing Cincinnati City Council by districts. Financial consultant Don Driehaus, a Democrat, raised the issue during his unsuccessful 1995 council run. Now he's working with investment adviser Emanuel Marshall of College Hill and Pete Witte, a Republican and president of the Price Hill Civic Club.
The proposal calls for replacing the nine citywide council seats with seven elected from districts and three elected citywide. If the proposal gets on the ballot, it would be the latest in a series of recent attempts to change the way the city governs itself.
In the past five years Cincinnati voters have adopted a "stronger mayor" system, civil service reform and campaign finance reform. The district proposal would cap the biggest series of council reforms since the Charter Committee swept to power in the 1920s and enacted the system still largely in place today.
So far Driehaus and Marshall have touted the idea to the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, the NAACP, both major political parties, Mayor Charlie Luken and others.
"The response has always been it's a good idea ... but everyone is playing the wait and see game," Marshall says.
Supporters of the proposal hope to decide by July 4 whether to try to put it on the November ballot or wait until next year.
The effort will require petitions with 9,245 signatures — a tall order for the District Election Committee for a Greater Cincinnati.
Fertilizing the grassroots
Marshall is pushing the district plan as a way to restore accountability. He says most of the city's 52 neighborhoods don't get enough attention from council. College Hill, for example, is hurting after Kroger, a CVS pharmacy and a restaurant closed, leaving three empty buildings at one intersection.
The city as a whole hasn't fared well since the late 1980s, when most of its major department stores closed, according to Marshall.
"Right now the city itself has been in a downturn for the past 15 years," he says.
Places such as Price Hill are plagued by a litany of nuisances, from tall grass to blighted buildings, according to Witte.
Marshall says districts of 43,000 to 50,000 people will allow more grassroots candidates to compete against better-funded candidates. Shoe leather can trump wallet leather.
"It does open the door for a lot more individuals (to run)," he says.
Gene Beaupre, who has worked for several council members, generally likes the district idea. A professor of political science at Xavier University, Beaupre agrees districts would force council to pay attention to specific neighborhoods and would increase competition for their jobs. But then Beaupre also thought the "stronger mayor" would produce a mayor who dominates council in a way Luken so far hasn't.
Neither major political party has taken a stance on the district proposal, but neither one has shunned it either.
Democrats control six of the nine council seats and the mayor's office, but they've been hospitable to the district idea in the past, according to Tim Burke, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
Witte, who presented the idea to Republicans, says some party members are interested in an all-district plan.
"I'm very happy to say that the Republican Party is excited about a district plan," he says.
Others, such as Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Lookout), have argued for as many as 15 districts. But Marshall says U.S. cities much larger than Cincinnati get by with fewer districts. For example, Houston has 1.9 million residents and eight districts.
'No real choice'
The Charter Committee has generally been more interested in restoring the proportional representation (PR) voting system.
PR is weighted voting. Voters give nine points to their favorite council candidates, eight to the second favorite and so on. The system allows voters to give priority to their favorites.
The city used this system from 1925 until 1957, when a Republican-backed drive changed elections to the current system. The move effectively kept Theodore M. Berry, who later became the city's first black mayor, from winning re-election.
The old knock on PR was that it took days to count votes and was too complicated to explain to voters. About 10 years ago Cincinnati voters narrowly defeated a proposal, led by civil rights activist Marian Spencer, to restore PR.
The main argument against district elections is redistricting. Who defines the new districts every 10 years? Marshall says a redistricting committee would handle it, as happens in Atlanta and other cities.
The Charter Committee is skeptical of claims that districts would provide more direct accountability.
"I think that's not true," says Jeff Cramerding, executive director of the Charter Committee. "I think the districts will be dominated by one political party or another. There will be no real choice."
Cramerding says he doesn't trust the political parties.
"I think they should focus on the election and elect good people in our current system this fall," he says, adding that the Charter Committee hasn't taken a position on the district proposal.
At least the discussion is now underway.
"I think people are just now beginning to talk about it," Burke says.
Driehaus hopes the discussion continues.
"The key is not to get it shot down coming out of the gate," he says. "I don't want to be in a situation where somebody is taking this to court."
For more information about the District Election Committee for a Greater Cincinnati, contact Emanuel Marshall at [email protected] or by calling 513-542-5633 or 513-787-7017.